May 20, 2012

The Hockey Mom: Learning perspectives from a Mite

By April Bowling

It was 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, typical game time for my son Sam’s Mite team. They were lined up along the glass, rocking back and forth with nervousness and anticipation. While they’d gotten three playoff games under their belts on the way to this championship game, the pumped-up music and booming announcer’s voice emphasized that this wasn’t like those other games. This was BIG. 

New England Hockey Journal is proud to debut a new column this month, “The Hockey Mom,” by April Bowling. 

All of a sudden, the other team’s players burst out of the locker room. They were the home squad and the stands erupted in cheers. To a nervous mom, it felt more “Seventh Game of the Stanley Cup Finals” than “Mite Championship.” It felt … epic? Not a word that naturally comes to mind describing a game where Sam spends almost as much time sprawling on the ice as he does on his feet. 

The dad standing next to me was muttering about how he should have sharpened his son’s skates and his wife looked like she was literally praying. As the opposing team trooped by me, I realized their faces were painted with fierce black streaks. War paint? Seriously? Sam glanced back at me with a look that asked, “Mom, are these guys for real?” 

Unfortunately, they were very much for real. After two shifts, we were down, 2-0. After 30 minutes, we were down, 7-3. That left 18 excruciating minutes to sit and watch our kids lose. Our valiant goalie battled, but the other team wasn’t letting up, and our team was beginning to let down.

It’s only human nature to deflate when the writing is on the wall or, in this case, on the scoreboard. The more savvy kids on Sam’s team would glance up mid-shift and visibly slump when they saw that the numbers hadn’t miraculously changed in their favor. I felt sick inside for them, which only made me cheer louder. I could barely resist the urge to strangle the insane opposition dad who kept screaming for his kid to “take it down and score again!”

Right, mister, because drubbing us (now) 8-3, you clearly need an insurance goal.

With 10 minutes left Sam came out for his first shift since the score had worsened. His nickname is “Puck Hog” … not because he won’t pass, but because he loves battling along the boards and scrapping for the puck. But he’d never been in a position like this before, and I wondered how he’d handle it. I frankly wondered if he’d give up. 

I saw him look up at the scoreboard, and my heart sank for him. But then as he lined up for the faceoff, I realized he was smiling. A few seconds later, he was riding a kid into the corner fighting for the puck.

Losing 8-3 in his very first championship game, Sam was having fun. 

April Bowling's son, Sam, stayed upbeat after his Mite team suffered a tough loss in their championship game.

There was no “Miracle” for his team that day. They lost by that same score, got medals and then banged their sticks on the ice as the other team collected the trophy (for the third year in a row). Some of the kids cried, and I think a lot of us parents wanted to. But most kids seemed just fine. In the locker room afterwards, there was talk of video games and play dates, not missed plays or final scores. When we got in the car, Sam’s sister, Morgan, asked him what he thought of the game.

“It was good. We’ll win next year,” he said without looking up from playing Angry Birds. “I’m hungry. Can we get pancakes?”

I’m relatively new at this hockey mom thing. And as such, I think I got a little rabid during the course of the playoffs. I earn my living as an endurance sports coach, so you would think I’d know a thing or two about the psychology of winning and losing, but the stakes all of a sudden felt so much higher when it was my kid. Funny enough, he didn’t seem to feel the same way. And that was a good thing.

It brought to mind a piece written a couple of years ago by Neil Swidey for Boston Globe Magazine.  Entitled “What We Lose When Everybody Wins,” it should be required reading for all hockey moms and dads. In the article, he offered this point, “We need to get to the point where a loss is seen for the insignificant thing it is. But we won’t get there by protecting kids from any exposure to it.” I would add that we also won’t get there if as parents we don’t see that “insignificance” ourselves.

When Sam went to his first hockey practice, he was off the ice crying in about 15 minutes and refused to go back for six months. Why? Because he thought everyone else was better than him. He had pictures in his head of what kind of hockey player he would be, and it didn’t involve milk crates and landing on his butt every 30 seconds.

The drive to play the game well that drove him right off the ice at age 5, kept him out there battling at age 6, even when his team was getting soundly beaten. Interestingly enough, Swidey would argue that it’s probably the same reason Sam doesn’t see the outcome as all that important. Healthy competition — by definition requiring a winner and a loser — means striving hard alongside your opponent to draw the best out of each other, not simply hoping for a win regardless of how you get it.  

So while it might have been really hard for this hockey mom (and dad and sister) to watch, it seems pretty clear that Sam and his teammates got as much out of a loss as a win. And we learned what it seems like a lot of little hockey players knew already — you don’t play hard to get a trophy. You play hard because you love the game.

And then you go get pancakes with the people who love you.

Introducing The Hockey Mom

New England Hockey Journal is proud to debut a new column this month, “The Hockey Mom,” by April Bowling. The column is aimed at mothers — and fathers — who toil long hours to support their young hockey players. April is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation, which works to get families off the couch and into the exercises of swimming, biking and running. Learn more at www.trirok.org. She can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.